It is not every day that the Knox community is able to celebrate a book release by one of its own.
But this past Friday, the Alumni Room was packed with students, faculty and friends of Knox as Associate Professor of English Chad Simpson read a selection from his newly published work “Tell Everyone I Said Hi” at the first Caxton Club event of the year.
The book was released last Monday, Oct. 1 as the winner of the 2012 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, which was juried by Jim Shepard of University of Iowa Press, and contains 18 short stories. The first story was written in the fall of 2002, the most recent in 2010. The book spans eight years of Simpson’s creative life.
“Only three of those [stories] existed before I came to teach at Knox in 2005, and so if you’re strong at math, you’ll realize that the additional 15 stories in addition to any number of other things were written over the last seven years while teaching here at Knox,” Simpson said. “And I think it’s safe to say that this book wouldn’t exist, or at least it wouldn’t exist in its present form, without this place.”
Monmouth resident Rich Hanson had no personal ties to Simpson, but had heard of his work and was interested in supporting a local artist.
“I enjoy reading good fiction, short stories, poetry. I come to a lot of the Knox College Caxton events,” Hanson said.
Knox students, like English literature major and junior Nicole Holtzman, were interested in supporting the department and a Knox professor.
“I come to most of the Caxton Club events, and I saw his YouTube video, and I really want to read his book,” Holtzman said. “I’ll probably buy it.”
“Loss and loneliness threads through the stories for sure. When I keep seeing little reviews or blurbs, people often mention those things. They aren’t things I necessarily think about while I’m writing, but as I look back at the collection as a whole, I can see that there,” Simpson said.
Simpson says that even the book’s title, “Tell Everyone I Said Hi,” is supposed to evoke separation and dislocation.
Associate Professor of English Monica Berlin also expanded upon an underlying motif. She spoke of the first few moments when she received Simpson’s books, placing it on her shelf and deciding where it would live.
“On that shelf too, so close to Chad Simpson, is the great Gerald Stern, who once wrote a question so perfect I am sometimes paralyzed by it: What is the life of sadness worth?” Berlin said.
“It’s a question I thought about repeatedly last week after I’d unwrapped my copy of Chad’s book and I lingered over the pages until I reached the end and I held it tight,” she continued. “Those stories that broke and kept breaking my heart. What is the life of sadness worth?”
She explained that it is a question with many answers: “Ask Chad, who’ll say he can’t get enough of sad. Whose characters worry they’re getting addicted to sad. Ask me and I’ll say it’s worth every one of these unbelievable stories Chad writes.”
Berlin spoke of the man she knew, a man who has published roughly 1,800 stories and essays and “every single one of them has knocked the wind out of me and has brought me to my knees.”
She spoke of a colleague who “writes masterfully about any number of tender things. This is the guy who writes ‘things’ and means it,” someone who “can and will write circles around you.”
Senior Grant Deam admired the straightforward aspect of Simpson’s style.
“He is the Midwest. It’s almost like a way in the speech or the dialogue, or the way of writing, you just get that feel. You just get a very genuine kind of feel,” he said.
Professor of Religious Studies James Thrall had never before attended a Caxton Club event, but works in the office across the hall from Simpson and wanted to come out to support him. Like Deam, he was impressed by Simpson’s style and “how much gets conveyed in very few words.”
Thrall referenced the underlying sadness in Simpson’s work.
“You can see just how awful, and more to the point, identify with just how awful it would feel to be in the position of the characters, so I think that’s the absorbing nature of [Simpson’s] work. It grips you and it’s too late; you’re sort of sucked into the story,” he said.
Associate Professor of English Gina Franco praised Simpson’s work in general.
“He’s funny, local, poignant. The stories, they’re tersely written,” Franco said.